A Very Catholic Reformation

      I am a Roman Catholic.   I was not surprised last month when I read of yet another pedophile priest.   Nor was I surprised by the cover-up.   But I was shocked to hear that two boys, ten and fourteen, were administered a solemn oath, on peril of their immortal souls, not to reveal that they were molested by Fr. Lawrence Murphy of the Milwaukee Archdiocese.      We need a new Reformation.   The last one started with the selling of indulgences.   The current estimate is that 4% of all priests are sex offenders.   That is one in twenty-five.   I doubt that 4% of sixteenth century priests sold indulgences.  

Catholicism is a universal call to holiness.   But a call to holiness is not a call to a static state.   Holiness is change.   Holiness is transition.   Holiness is reformation.

Holiness is reconciliation.   We need to publicly confess, in the simplest terms, that our priests committed felonies, and our bishops conspired to cover-up of rape and molestation. 

Catholics are in the business of mercy and justice.   But as there can be no justice without mercy, so there can be no mercy without justice.   Only then can there be forgiveness.   But the problem is not as simple as throwing felons into jail.   Many of the pedophiles, like Fr. Murphy, are dead.   In other cases, statutes of limitations prevent prosecutions.

How, then, do we achieve reconciliation?

We need a new Reformation filled with more questions than answers.   This reform must be unitary, one in which ministers and laity participate equally.   Any reform, led solely by bishops, is doomed to failure because – and this cannot be said too bluntly – our bishops, as a group, now lack moral credibility.   

     One place to start is with what we Catholics do well, public penance.   We could, for example, set-up panels modeled on South Africa’s Truth And Reconciliation Commission.   Ideally, these panels would be both national and diocesan.   Victims of sexual abuse would be invited to give witness to their experiences.   Perpetrators, and the Church officials who shielded them, should also give testimony.   The mandate of the commission would be to record, to reflect, to reconcile, and to form the questions that lead to further dialogue.

It is worth noting that I refer to reconciliation that in essence is relational.   Such reconciliation does not shield anyone from criminal prosecution.   Nor am I oblivious to the fact that one cannot change the sexual orientation of a pedophile, any more than one can change the orientation of a heterosexual or a homosexual.   I speak here of the healing of the emotional wounds.   We despise abusers.   We feel betrayed by bishops.   The greatest danger is in leaving these feelings unexplored.   It is easy to despise pedophiles.   But there is much risk when we despise the mentally ill.   There is also a certain hazard in using his worst decision as the measure of a bishop’s entire career.   These risks, these hazards, lead to the closing of our hearts, which leads to the closing of our minds, which leads to the closing of our church doors.   There can be no reform without dialogue.   And dialogue is nothing if it is not the promise to stay in relationship.

One dialogue that is not happening, one that must happen, concerns celibacy.   Many feel that celibacy is a terrible idea, a medieval vestige like self-flagellation.   Asceticism will always be with us.   It can be a healthy choice for a few people.   A very few.   But celibacy is a problem also.   Celibacy does not cause pedophilia.   It causes isolation.   If the Archbishop of Milwaukee had a ten year old son, he never would have protected Fr. Murphy.

How did we come to this?   Why did we come to this?    I am not suggesting answers.   I merely am suggesting ways to frame the questions.   That we are in a state of transition, this is all that is clear.   To what we are transitioning?   Who knows?.   I sometimes wonder if I am a member of a dying religion.   Are we Catholics destined to become the Zoroastrians of the West, colorful but irrelevant to the larger culture?   Or are we on the cusp of a great revival in the Church?   I don’t know.   But unless we open ourselves to dialogue, we surely will die of the silence.


Filed under: John Samuel Tieman, Prose